Woodwind instruments include flutes and reed instruments, both of which produce sound by blowing air into a cylindrical body. Called woodwinds because they were traditionally made of wood, they’re now made of both wood and metal. Woodwinds are set apart from the rest of the wind instrument family because of the way sound is produced. Unlike brass instruments, in which air passes through the player’s vibrating lips, flutes are sounded by directing a narrow stream of air into the instrument and reed pipes are sounded by directing air through one or more thin reeds.
Woodwinds come in a wide variety of types, ranging from simple, improvised instruments to complex, intricate ones. Most woodwind instruments, but not all, are cylindrical and allow air to enter through a narrow opening, which directs the air inside to a sharp edge. As the airstream vibrates inside the instrument, finger holes are opened and closed along the body to create different notes. However, there are flutes and reed pipes that are simply open tubes with no holes, in which pitch is changed based on the speed of airflow.
Most modern woodwind instruments are made of woods like bamboo and teak, or metal alloys, usually containing nickel, silver, or copper. Most reeds are fashioned from natural cane with one end thinned down, although there are some made from synthetic materials like plastic. Although synthetic reeds last longer, natural reeds are almost exclusively preferred by most musicians for sound quality. In the case of double (or quadruple reeds for the shehnai) the reeds are doubled over or bound together and the air vibrates between them and into the instrument.
The first known woodwind instrument appeared over 43,000 years ago in the form of a flute carved from the thigh bone of a bear. Other flutes from this time period have been discovered to be made from bird bones and mammoth tusks, chosen for their hollowness once the marrow has been removed. Written accounts of flutes date back to 2600 BCE in a Sumerian-language tablet and in Indian literature from 1500 BCE.
The first reed instruments were thought to have been animal calls, appearing around 10,000 BCE and made from the stalks of plants. These primitive instruments were considered double reeds and it wasn’t until around 2700 BCE that single reed instruments were invented, namely the Egyptian memet. Thereafter, simple single-reed instruments, historically called idioglots, became as common as flutes in many civilisations throughout the world. Some of the earliest instruments in the woodwind family are still played today, like the bansuri which is said to have been invented around 1400 BCE.
Throughout modern history, countless woodwind instruments were developed with increasing complexity all over the world. Variations on primitive woodwinds were introduced, such as capped reed instruments that utilize reeds without the player putting their mouth on them, like the pungi. Orchestral woodwinds, such as the clarinet, saxophone, and oboe, were developed in Europe beginning in the 17th century and gained considerable popularity during the Baroque period of European history. The last major changes to the woodwind family occurred in the early 20th century when variations of many Western orchestral woodwinds were introduced.
Flutes can be very simple or very intricate but all work in the same basic way. A narrow stream of air is blown across the edge of the mouthpiece, creating vibrations within the chamber. Flutes fall into three categories: side-blown, end-blown, and fipple. Side-blown flutes are held horizontally and played through a mouthpiece on the side of the instrument, while end-blown flutes are held vertically and played through a mouthpiece at one end. Unlike the first two types where the player sharpens the flow of air with their lips (called embouchure), fipple flutes have a duct that directs air into an edge for the player.
Reed instruments use either one or two reeds, with single reeds typically affixed to a mouthpiece, called a ligature. The mouthpiece gives the reed a surface to vibrate against, while double reeds vibrate against each other. The vibrating flow of air enters the chamber of the instrument, giving it a distinct sound. Because the player puts the reed into their mouth, melodies aren’t easily articulated with airflow alone (like with a flute), so almost all reed instruments have finger holes that allow the player to change pitch. Some double-reed instruments are capped and air is blown into a chamber before it is pushed through the reeds, but these are few.
While all woodwind instruments are played using the same basic technique of blowing a stream of air into a chamber, there are a few different techniques available to woodwind musicians. The position and strength of one’s lips, or embouchure, alters the quality of the sound, and a strong embouchure ensures maximum control over the tone and quality of music. One of the most popular techniques in woodwind playing is circular breathing, which allows the player to produce a continuous sound without interruption. This is accomplished by breathing in through the nose while pushing air out through the mouth.
The tongue plays a part in technique, as well. Using the tongue to create a breach in air flow can alter the tone of the note, or notes, being played. Producing a “tee” sound while playing either a flute or reed instrument produces a note with a harder beginning while producing a “da” sound softens the tone of a note. Double-tonguing is used to perform notes that are too rapid for standard articulation, and this is produced by creating a repetitive “tee-kee” sound with the tongue. A rarely employed, and more difficult to master, technique is called flutter-tonguing, which produces a unique, fluttering note. The method involves rolling the tip of the tongue as rapidly as possible while playing. Each of these techniques require more air volume than usual to execute properly.
Woodwind instruments typically have multiple holes in the body of the instrument, called tone holes. Smaller woodwinds, like the shehnai, have between five and ten holes while larger instruments, like the bassoon, have between 20 and 30. Covering one or more holes at a time while playing produces different notes while holding a steady intonation. Some instruments, like the western concert flute, have keyed holes that allow the player to change positions between notes more quickly and steadily.
The pitch of all woodwind instruments can be affected by the speed of airflow into the instrument—the faster the air, the higher the pitch and the slower the air, the lower the pitch. Pitch is also affected by the length of the instrument, with shorter instruments producing higher notes and longer instruments producing lower notes. Some woodwind instruments have holes that can change the octave being played, called register keys. These are typically placed on the opposite side of the instrument from the tone holes along the front and are covered or pressed with the player’s thumb.
The world of woodwind instruments has been home to a great number of renowned experts, both in history and current day. Below are some of the most talented and well-known modern day woodwind musicians from around the world.